Lawlor sees progress in prison reform

Mike Lawlor

Mike Lawlor has three goals for criminal justice reform in Connecticut: Reduce crime. Reduce spending. And restore the public’s confidence in the system.

From his vantage point as a professional criminal justice reformer, Connecticut is well on its way to achieving all three.

Lawlor, who has served as the state’s under secretary for criminal justice policy and planning since January 2011, laid out those three goals in an interview on the WNHH program “Criminal Justice Insider with Babz Rawls-Ivy and Jeff Grant.” He was Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s top deputy focused on finding alternatives to prison and addressing historic injustice in the system, a central goal of Malloy’s tenure cast as the “Second Chance society.” As Malloy’s controversial tenure nears its end, that effort is widely seen as his greatest success.

Lawlor, who lives on New Haven’s East Shore, is currently on leave from his position as a tenured associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven. Before he was appointed to the criminal justice policy position at the state’s Office of Policy and Management (OPM), Lawlor served 12 terms in the state’s General Assembly representing East Haven

“If you’re going to have public policy,” Lawlor said as he reflected on his career to date in public service, “you should have really clear goals and you should be able to articulate what those are in a way that people can understand them.”

Reducing crime and reducing spending are pretty straightforward, he said. For the goal of restoring confidence in the criminal justice system, he specifically cited crime victims who feel that they did not get justice, African Americans and Latinos who feel that the system is not fair to them, and citizens as a whole who read articles everyday about police brutality and wrongful convictions and misconduct by prosecutors, judges, correctional officers, and legislators.

“When people lose confidence” in the criminal justice system, he said, “it leads to more crime.”

As a student and aspiring lawyer and politician nearly 40 years ago, Lawlor had two critical encounters with criminal justice systems that both tested his confidence and encouraged him to spend his career working to change the way governments administer law and handle those who violate it.

The first experience came not in Connecticut, but in Communist Poland. In 1980, Lawlor was attending graduate school in London. He and a college friend from the University of Connecticut went on a trip to visit his friend’s family in Poland, which would soon see the rise of the Solidarity trade union and political movement that would help bring an end to one-party Communist rule in the country.

During the trip, Lawlor was arrested for taking photos of people standing in a meat line. He was sent to prison and interrogated in Russian. “There’s nothing like sitting in a jail cell in another country,” he said, where there’s no bail, no court hearings, and you have basically no rights. He only wound up spending a day in jail, but he remembered worrying at the time that he could be behind bars for a day, or for a decade.

A couple years later, he said, he got a job with Connecticut’s sheriffs departments. He said he put a lot of handcuffs on people, took them to prison, and got to watch a lot of criminal trials. Reflecting on the time he had spent in law school in Washington D.C. as a public defender, where he always found himself begging prosecutors for the best deal possible for his clients, Lawlor said the public defender job and the job in the sheriffs department encouraged him to become a prosecutor.

He found that so much of the criminal justice world hinged upon the discretion of prosecutors that, instead of pleading with them from the perspective of a public defender, he thought it wiser and more effective to become a prosecutor himself.

Over the decades as he has worked as a prosecutor, a state legislator, an academic, and now a state-appointed policy expert, Lawlor has seen a great deal of change in the criminal justice world in Connecticut. Particularly, he said, that change has come under the two-term administration of Democratic Gov. Malloy.

In the 1980s, he said, the public debate around criminal justice policy was “pretty cut and dry.” Most people and legislators in power approved of the war on drugs, thought that criminals should be in jail, and that they should serve longer sentences.

“It was pretty simplistic,” he said.

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Lawlor lobbying outside the House.

Now, he said, the public is much more wary of an excessively punitive criminal justice system because of the ubiquity of videos from police body cameras, convenience store surveillance cameras, and cell phone cameras that point to abuses of power that may in other times have failed to garner popular and media attention.

Also, he said, criminal justice reform has become more and more of a non-partisan issue as fiscal conservatives who criticize the abundance of state dollars spent on locking people up find themselves on the same side of the issue as left-leaning progressives who believe in the moral and legal imperative of reducing prison populations.

Under the leadership of Malloy, Lawlor said, Connecticut has taken advantage of the national, increasingly non-partisan momentum of criminal justice reform to achieve some real changes that work towards realizing the three goals of reducing crime, reducing spending, and restoring confidence in the criminal justice system. Lawlor pointed to Malloy’s commitment to eliminating the death penalty, passing bail reform, and pushing for a variety of Second Chance Society policies as examples of the reform mentality of this administration.

As evidence of that approach’s success, Lawlor said Connecticut’s prison population of around 13,000 is at a 24-year low for the state.

He noted that Connecticut has closed prisons “left and right” over the past eight years, not for the sake of releasing people who have broken the law, but because fewer and fewer people are committing crimes, being arrested, and being sent to jail.

He said this administration’s greatest criminal justice reform legacy will likely lie in how it has handled youth offenders.

“If you look at 18-year-olds getting arrested compared to 2009,” he said, “it’s down 65 percent.” He said the number of 18-to-21-year-olds behind bars has also dropped by 65 percent, from around 2,100 to around 800.

“That’s the school-to-prison pipeline,” he said. “When the story of [Malloy’s] criminal justice legacy is really told, that will be the highlight.”

And what that all adds up to, Lawlor said, is a lot less crime, less money spent on prisons and other criminal justice institution, and steps towards restoring public confidence in the law and the government the officials who administer it.

This story first appeared in the New Haven Independent on June 4. 2018.

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